Monday, April 16, 2007

Virtual Winery Is Very Real

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - David Dain Smith lives in Missouri, but his California winery is just a click away, waiting to spring to life in the dim glow of his computer screen.

Smith is making wine through Crushpad, a winery where the grapes are real but the experience is as virtual as members want it to be with e-mail updates, live chat and Web cams.

For Smith, a 49-year-old microbiologist working in pharmaceutical sales, the dream of making wine seemed like it would have to wait until retirement.

"Do you have $3 million sitting around? Well, I don't," Smith said.

He's now making Dain wines, to some acclaim, while keeping his day job.

At $5,000 to $10,000 to make the minimum one barrel a year, Crushpad costs more than stomping grapes in a garage. But it's far from the financial plunge of setting up a winery.

The meeting of technology and enology has democratized other areas as well, New York musician Lane Steinberg said.

Years ago, wine criticism was for a privileged few. Today, Steinberg is one of scores of keyboard connoisseurs who rate wines on his Red Wine Haiku Review Web site, which rates wine by poetry. ("Berry jangle jumps/Through a hoop of a sunrise/A swinger's breakfast" was his description of one pinot noir.)

San Francisco-based Crushpad was started by businessman Michael Brill after he noticed that neighbors were fascinated by the vines he planted in his backyard and realized there was a market ready to be tapped.

Members sign up to make at least one barrel of wine per year (300 75- milliliter bottles) and decide what style of wine they want and what grapes they want to buy from numerous suppliers available.

Winery staff keep their virtual vintners up to date with e-mails and Web postings. When the fruit comes in, Web cams show the crush, complete with live chat so viewers can question the workers, who respond to computers equipped with voice-recognition software.

Further along in the process, members can participate in blending and bottling decisions and design their own labels.

Staff, including Crushpad winemaker Mike Zitzlaff, are there to make sure enthusiasm doesn't triumph over experience.

"The client is never wrong, but there are varying degrees of wrongness," he explained.

Interaction isn't all by Internet. Several members take vacation time to take part in key events, such as bottling, or to just hang out.

Smith is one of those who visits often, but when he can't get out to California, "the Web cam is pretty neat."

He's got about 500 cases of wine in barrel this year and has even received a 92 (out of 100) rating from influential wine critic Robert Parker.

On the opposite side of the world, Australian winemaker Stuart Bourne sees online wine as a way to reach a big audience and shake some of the stuffing out of traditional venues in the process.

"Wine is not to be sat on a table and stared at," he said.

Bourne, winemaker at the Barossa Valley Estate winery in South Australia, recently held an online tasting in which tasters had been sent samples ahead of time so they could sniff and sip along.

Tasting at the computer just doesn't have the romance of cozying up to a tasting room bar, so Bourne took a deliberately informal approach.

When it came time to pour, he cheerfully told his unseen guests, "Why don't we have a bit of a snort?" -- which is something you almost never hear in Napa -- before going on to discuss the winery's 2003 E&E Black Pepper shiraz.

Live chat meant he could answer questions directly.

"It was an amazing experience to know that you can be sitting in Australia in front of a camera and know that around the world there's a whole lot of other people sitting there watching and participating with you," he said.

Still, having to be on camera at 4 a.m. to be in sync with tasters in the United Kingdom and North America led to a less than palatable pairing: toothpaste and wine.
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